Monday, January 5, 2009

The Best Films I Saw in 2008

It was not a great year for films, as you'll see by the list below, but good films are still somehow made every year. (I did miss some I was hoping to see, such as Frozen River and Changeling).

The ten best new films I saw for the first time in 2008 (in no particular order):

1. There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A near masterpiece of the sort I thought impossible to make in our age. Anderson breathes film history, and this film resonates with echoes of Erich von Stroheim, D. W. Griffith, and Orson Welles.

2. The Band's Visit, directed by Erin Kolirin. Not a revelation, but instead a modest cross-cultural character study.

3. Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau. A good script and smart casting - what every superhero movie needs and rarely gets.

4. Redbelt, directed by David Mamet. Mamet and martial arts: what more needs to be written?

5. WALL-E, directed by Andrew Stanton. Early '70s sci-fi, plus silent comedy, plus great animation, plus social commentary. If only some adult films were this smart.

6. Vicky Christina Barcelona, directed by Woody Allen. Like an Eric Rohmer fable, only with Penelope Cruz and a gun.

7. Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley. Not perfect, but intriguing in ways that most Hollywood films don't attempt.

8. Young @ Heart, directed by Stephen Walker. After seeing this documentary, you'll never hear Coldplay the same way again.

9. Hellboy II: The Golden Army, directed by Guillermo del Toro. Toro has taken the helm from Ray Harryhausen, bringing fantastic new worlds and characters to life on the screen.

10. Synecdoche, New York, directed by Charlie Kaufman. Pretentious, puzzling, depressing, ambitious, disturbing - you won't be able to get it out of your head.

Honorable mention: The Dark Knight, for having the courage to take the popular characters' concepts to their logical conclusions.

The ten best older films I saw for the first time in 2008 (in no particular order):

1. Blade Runner (the final director's cut), directed by Ridley Scott. This is the film that should have been released in 1982.

2. Judex, directed by Louis Feuillade. A four-hour serial, strictly speaking. Judex draws upon 18th century literature for its framework, but projects forward to 20th century pop and pulp culture with its potent influences on characters like Zorro and Batman.

3. Trader Horn, directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Not a great film by many standards, and racist in bizarre, early '30s ways, but nevertheless somehow mesmerizing in all its dreamlike, hallucinogenic, poorly-shot wonder.

4. The Beast of the City, directed by Charles Brabin. A forgotten, pre-code, proto-crime film with Walter Huston playing a cop Jack Kirby could have written (ala Sgt. "Terrible" Turpin).

5. This Happy Breed, directed by David Lean. An obscure Noel Coward work is given a sweeping but subtle treatment in this immersive and moving family study covering several decades.

6. Oliver Twist, directed by David Lean. Captures and distills the "look" people now think of as Dickension.

7. Harriet Craig, directed by Vincent Sherman. Joan Crawford's on the warpath, obsessed with the neatness of her house in this vehicle that borders on being camp, and was almost certainly partly autobiographical.

8. Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath, directed by Edward Sedgwick. Sedgwick tries to do right by Buster Keaton in this one, but the MGM taskmasters were breathing down his neck. One of the last Keaton feature films with scenes bareable to watch.

9. The Web, directed by Michael Gorden. Tidy little film noir with Vincent Price as another delicious baddie.

10. The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston. After two misguided attempts, Hollywood finally got D. Hammett's novel done right. This version is reasonably faithful to the source material (even when watered down), and Huston brought a "live in the studio" immediacy to many scenes that foreshadow the look of '50s live television.

The worst film I saw (for the last time) in 2008:

Yes, directed by Sally Potter. Pretentious directing, embarrassing script, characters you quickly learn to hate, situations that lull you to sleep, a false, happy ending - and the entire screenplay is written in iambic pentameter for no discernable reason.There's nothing to like about this movie. Nothing. Nothing.

G, directed by Christopher Scott Cherot. There was nothing to stop this hip-hop version of The Great Gatsby from working, but it was wrecked anyway.

The Is-it-a-Masterpiece-or-Junk? award goes to the Rialto rerelease to theatres of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt. It's either fascinatingly bad or fascinatingly good; I can't yet tell. But I wish there were more movies like it being made.
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